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January 19, 2017

Senate Matters: Doubling down

At last month’s Senate Council meeting, Chancellor Gallagher observed that in response to the growing sense of uncertainty and fear many are feeling as we face the impending major shifts in our public policies, the Pitt community should “double down on what makes us a great University.” Many of us have been endorsing, and also offering variations of, that call. That we are doing so does not seem controversial, but deciding what to do next may be.

The changes and challenges we’re responding to, while dramatic, are not sudden, but rather represent the latest stage of longer term trends that can be seen not only in our country but in societies around the globe. Scapegoating of groups based on ethnic, religious and gender identities is widespread and becomes a primary method utilized to reinforce and exacerbate existing class divisions and growing inequality.

People have argued that we now have entered a period of “post-truth politics.” “Fake news” no longer refers primarily to the satirical comedy of The Onion, “Saturday Night Live” or “The Daily Show,” but rather to the ubiquitous and effective use of social media and web-based marketing as tools to manipulate people’s economic and political behavior.

At Pitt we must not forget that in a time of a growing anti-intellectualism, our basic mission and practice — the pursuit and production of knowledge, conducting objective empirical research, teaching and training our students, and serving our communities and nation in a variety of ways — are being called into question and directly attacked. The campaign rhetoric of politicians, both at the national and state level, and the political promises they seem anxious to fulfill, make it clear that those of us at an institution affirming commitments to diversity, inclusion, free speech and academic freedom are not paranoid when we worry that our core values are being minimized and threatened.

How then to “double down?” For its part, Pitt’s administration is encouraging and enabling new initiatives for open discussion and debate about the big issues affecting us all. One example is the University Forum on Current Issues, organized by the Office of the Provost. Its first event, hosted yesterday by the School of Law, focused on immigration issues, including the deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA) program, the sanctuary cities movement and the various proposals to ban, register and punish groups of people based on some marker of their otherness. Of course, we already have been engaged in explorations of those and other aspects of diversity and inclusion through the Year of Diversity activities, which also will expand as the semester unfolds.

My hope is that our research faculty, especially those working in the fields of climate and environmental science, will “double down” by emphasizing the current consensus view about climate change and its probable impacts, and what, if any, of the science still is being legitimately contested. Those of us who teach and work in the humanities, social sciences and professional schools should consider appropriate ways to focus attention on questions of ethics, lessons from history and how to objectively understand and evaluate institutions, organizations, collective action and public policy. Doing that more intentionally and collaboratively might be close to “doubling down.”

We, especially faculty, are often labeled as underworked and overpaid “elitists,” disconnected from the “real world” and disdainful of the regular people who live and work there. At times we do appear to be trying to live up to those negative stereotypes; one way for all of us to “double down” is to engage in self-examination and self-critique. If others’ perception of us is the negative stereotype, especially when the perception is false, we need to seriously consider the options for us to effectively counter that stereotype.

This is not, however, a time to “double down” on the specialist and esoteric research that has been our most privileged and rewarded work. Rather, the important insights and knowledge produced from those efforts need to be made more accessible, and therefore more useful, to our students and our publics. This is not a call for “dumbing down,” but rather a call to accept a truly difficult challenge. When we routinely perform for a highly sophisticated, but small, audience of peers, we become comfortable but isolated. Much of that knowledge we produce really is, or has the capacity to be, important, and translations and interpretations that can be understood by more people are potentially an effective way for us to move closer to a place where decisions about policies that affect us all are made based on fact rather than on emotional beliefs and opinions.

Of course, confronting the big issues necessarily means we will also, at times, find ourselves confronting each other. The Pitt community is diverse, as are our positions on many issues. If we engage in those confrontations in principled, respectful and productive ways, modeling that example of “what makes Pitt a great University” may end up being the most important and influential thing we can do.

Frank Wilson is president of the University Senate.

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